Exclusive: Midlands Connect and WMRE talk collaboration and investment in the Midlands' railway

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 19

In the jigsaw puzzle of regional transport decision-making, there must be collaboration and compromise. Midlands Connect media lead James Bovill speaks to Maria Machancoses, director of Midlands Connect, and Malcolm Holmes, executive director of West Midlands Rail Executive (WMRE), about working together and why investment in the Midlands’ railways must start matching demand.

There are a multitude of organisations both planning and delivering transport projects in the Midlands. How do Midlands Connect and WMRE fit into that jigsaw?

Maria Machancoses (MM): WMRE is one of Midlands Connect’s most valuable partnerships; it’s providing real local leadership over rail services within the West Midlands conurbation, that for a long time, had been lacking. It’s working with operators, the government, and regulators to really deliver a step-change in commuter services with new stations, extra services, and a better overall passenger experience. We wholeheartedly support WMRE’s 30-year Rail Investment Strategy, published just last month.

Midlands Connect was established to take a wider, more strategic view, acknowledging the need to balance local commuter needs with a plan to connect all corners of the Midlands, east and west, with faster and more frequent services, and make the case for investment where it’s most needed. Significantly, we’ll never be a delivery body, which is why it’s so important to have a close relationship with organisations like WMRE who will ultimately manage new services.

Malcolm Holmes (MH): I often get asked about the difference between Midlands Connect and WMRE, and I know Maria does too. I tell people we’re doing very different jobs.

Where Midlands Connect is primarily about strategy for both railways and highways, connecting the wider region, we focus primarily on commuter rail services in the West Midlands conurbation. Our roles are complementary, but sometimes with healthy conflict. While we are looking to fill capacity with slow-stopping commuter trains, Midlands Connect wants to bring in more fast trains between cities. Inevitably, this requires compromise, but it is so important that these decisions are being made in the Midlands instead of Whitehall.

The Midlands Rail Hub is a case in point. Is it possible for both Midlands Connect and WMRE to get what they want from the extra capacity the proposals will create?

MM: The Midlands Rail Hub was once a very Birmingham-centric proposal, but Midlands Connect is now talking about its potential for the whole region, which makes the argument for investment far more compelling to the government. With relatively modest investment in platforms, signals, and new track – this is no Crossrail-style mega-project – we can add 24 additional passenger trains per hour onto the network, introduce faster services, and create 36 additional freight paths. It’s a golden opportunity to bring the towns and cities of the East and West Midlands closer together.

The compromise comes because the rail hub can also make space for more commuter trains on the West Midlands network. There is, of course, a healthy level of argument over how to plan these new services to achieve the greatest benefit, and we’re already working on the assumption that the plans include more trains on the reinstated Camp Hill commuter line in to Birmingham. 

Crucially, for the first time these discussions are being had in the region, for the region.

MH: WMRE unequivocally supports the Midlands Rail Hub because it provides the capacity we all so desperately need. The healthy conflict I talk about comes from deciding how that capacity is used.

We’re working closely with Midlands Connect to support its evidence gathering and looking to take over the delivery of certain aspects of the rail hub, including investment in platform 4 at Birmingham Snow Hill station. This level of collaboration should ensure a seamless transition from strategy to delivery, when the time comes.

Where does the redevelopment of Birmingham Moor Street come into all this? It’s important both for the Midlands Rail Hub and the arrival of HS2.

MM: Moor Street serves an important local and regional function and, when HS2 arrives, a national function too, as the closest connection to Curzon Street.

That is the starting point for all discussions about the future of Moor Street. We are talking about which trains that currently arrive into New Street can divert to Moor Street to empower it to become a true gateway to the rest of the Midlands and a direct access point to HS2. This ‘one station’ concept for New Street, Moor Street, Snow Hill, and Curzon Street is extremely important, so that whichever station you arrive into Birmingham from, there will be a seamless link to your connecting service.

MH: Birmingham Moor Street desperately needs some love and focus. From a passenger perspective, Moor Street must be seen as the suburban platform of HS2’s Curzon Street station, so it’s considered as a single terminus. It’s also where many of the Midlands Rail Hub interregional services will arrive into, so we need to do something drastic to make sure it’s fit for purpose.

That’s why we’re looking at more concourse space, a new entrance towards the rapidly-growing Digbeth, and how to connect it properly to New Street which, at the moment, is accessed by a dark walkway underneath the Bullring shopping centre. I think it would be a failure of the rail industry and local government if the first HS2 trains arrive into a gleaming new Curzon Street station in 2026 and passengers still have to walk under that tunnel to get a connecting service from New Street. We’re all coming together to make sure that doesn’t happen.

We want as many people in the Midlands to be able to access HS2 as possible; we’re working with Transport for West Midlands to extend tram lines, build new train stations, and bring in the longest bus rapid transit network in Europe.

Is the government listening to the case you’re all making from the Midlands?

MM: Rail travel is more popular than ever, and in the West Midlands it’s growing more quickly than anywhere in the country. We’ve seen a four-fold increase in journeys since 1995 and a 5.4% increase last year alone. In London, rail use is actually falling. It’s why I keep on making the point that rail investment in the Midlands must start matching demand to futureproof our network.

We cannot underestimate the influence our ‘one voice’ regional approach is having at Westminster. The Midlands Rail Hub has gone from a project about Birmingham’s bottlenecks to one with pan-regional significance, and that’s pushed it much higher up the investment agenda. Transport secretary Chris Grayling is now talking openly about the possibility of delivering the rail hub and, with the project’s Strategic Outline Business Case due in 2019, we’re all confident of a major investment decision in the not too distant future.

MH: I think the government is listening to our collaborative approach, and I’m certain it will lead to significant investment. The West Midlands Combined Authority has had significant devolved funding and, with strong political structures in place, including in the East Midlands, our joined-up approach gives the government the confidence to invest.

Collaboration is the key; it’s what sets us apart from other bits of the country. The way we’re all seeking to work together, through groups like Midlands Connect and WMRE, alongside operators, Network Rail and central government, enables us to punch above our weight. It’s the single most important ingredient to our success, and the one that will deliver us the greatest results. Our time is now.


Maria and Malcolm will both be speaking at this year's TransCityRail Midlands as keynote speakers and for panel debates to discuss investment opportunities in rail across the Midlands. Don't miss your chance to attend, visit the website here. 


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